The Booktopia Book Guru asks
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Lichfield, a town in the English midlands, in 1961. It was the year the Berlin Wall went up, and the year poor old Ham the chimp was sent into space. The Wall came down the year my oldest son was born. That’s a neat kind of circle, I think.
My family came to Oz when I was three and I grew up in Perth. I went to Hollywood High School, which wasn’t at all how it sounds. There was a cemetery across the road.
I left school at fifteen! And then I left Perth and came to the eastern states.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At seven I wanted to be a hippy. They arrived in the streets of Perth like velvet flowers, or gypsies. They were against wars, and they sang songs and had bare feet. A child’s dream.
At twelve I wanted to be an actor, just for a minute. My mum is an actor. But when I tried it I didn’t like it. Everybody looks at you. But I did love the theatre and still do.
At eighteen I wanted to be a writer.
At thirty I wanted to be a writer.
Now I’m fifty-three and I want to be a palaeontologist. I think it might be too late. I’ll just have to be a writer.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
At eighteen I believed discipline was a sort of punishment. Now I think learning to be self-disciplined is the road to happiness. But the truth is most of what I believed then, I believe now. Only more so.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
There wasn’t one particular piece of art that inspired me. My childhood was full of books, music, theatre and art so I was always stimulated in that direction. But when I was young I had a pash on T.H. White’s novel Once & Future King, and Gerald Durrell’s memoir My Family & Other Animals. I read them over and over. Also Alice In Wonderland and the Narnia books.
When I was in my twenties I was in love with so many writers for so many reasons. I wanted to write like Dickens and Virginia Woolf and Hunter S Thompson all at once. (And I think I might have, which might explain a lot of things.)
These days I’ve got a bit of a story-crush on Barbara Kingsolver (just for her Poisonwood Bible really), a word-crush on Annie Proulx (for The Shipping News), and am at this very moment busy adoring the writers of the 50s who were writing out of the southern states of the USA. Writers like Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. And of course, William Faulkner.
As for music, since I started singing I find much inspiration in the lyrics of wacky old folk songs. They are so spooky, so sad, so funny, and in so few words.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I didn’t really have any number of avenues open to me. I’m not great at visual art though I enjoy it and do it for fun and to work out my novels, and I love music but had no motivation in that direction in my younger days. Now I sing with a bluegrass band called the HillWilliams.
I write because that’s the art form I was drawn to, and the one that keeps me engaged. My strongest responses were always to books and theatre. Language fascinates me. It always seems to be talking about something more than its words and phrases express. I have days when everything that comes out of people’s mouths sounds like poetry.
It’s a very personal and sort of inexplicable relationship I have to words. I have written almost every day of my life since my early teens, mostly short stories and poems. But I loved writing that history book so much and the chance to try a novel was irresistible.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Plenty is for ten- to twelve-year-olds, but I think adults will like it too. It’s a contemporary realist fiction, set in and around Melbourne. My other books have centred around the medieval world so this was a whole new thing for me. I’ve really enjoyed not having to do quite so much research before I can write one sensible sentence!
It concerns Maddy Frank who has always lived in the same house, in the same street in Fitzroy, a suburb of Melbourne. On Maddy’s tenth birthday her parents tell her they are moving, and then they do so. They move out to the Plenty Valley where Maddy has to start at a new school and do without her lifelong best friend. Her anger and homesickness is intense, until two people she meets help her begin to forgive her parents and settle into her new home. One is her grandmother, Nana Mad, and the other is her new desk-mate, Grace Wek who was born in a refugee camp. Both have stories of leaving home and resettlement to tell. Through their stories Maddy learns more about who she is and where she comes from, what resilient people are and what she herself is capable of. She also learns the reason parents make their children move.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope they will recognise their own attachment to their homes, and will wonder to themselves how they would respond to being displaced from it. I hope they will be moved by the courage in the resettlement stories. But most I hope they’ll enjoy Maddy Frank, and her family and friends. I did.
I admire writers who write about hard things without sinking into sentimentality or mere pity. I think I admire writers for the same reasons I admire anyone —courage, emotional honesty, warm hearts. I loved Night by Eli Wiesel for that reason.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I think writers suffer from the same desire as theoretical physicists. Physicists want to discover the Theory of Everything, and writers want to write the Book about Everything. I share that impossible goal. A story that contains everything about human life; about what it’s like to be alive and conscious right now, right here, but with all of history contained in it too. Everything.
It’s too big, of course. But there it is.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read. Read. Read.
It’s the only advice worth anything, I reckon. It’s almost more important than writing, at first. If you read widely and with passion you will develop an ear for good writing, which means you’ll sense when the work is going bung. You will build up a useful word-hoard, which means when you come to tell your own stories you’ll have a sizable tool-kit. And eventually you’ll learn to recognise the centuries-old conversations writers have engaged in, and maybe even join in. And that’s when it gets really interesting.
And second: love the doing. If you don’t love it, why bother? Art is not compulsory.
Ananda, thank you for playing.
by Ananda Braxton-Smith
A place to call home.
Maddy Frank has always lived in Jermyn Street. Always. But now her mum and dad are making her move from the city, far away to some place called Plenty. How will Maddy survive without everything and everyone she knows? Nobody understands. But what about her mysterious new classmate, Grace Wek, who was born in a refugee camp? Could Grace actually understand how Maddy feels?